Providing Speaking Opportunities Through a Variety of Formats

Being willing to learn is an important part of teaching. We’d be doing our students a disservice if we ever concluded that we had acquired enough knowledge or mastered enough skills to be a good teacher. For this reason, among others, there’s value in reading professional development textbooks. Even the how-to books that seem appropriate only for beginning teachers can aid an experienced teacher. I remember the first time I read Jeremy Harmer’s How to Teach English. There were a few ideas that solidified unnamed instincts I had been operating on in the classroom. For example, Harmer affirmed my belief that a teacher should create plenty of opportunities for students to speak: “Students are the people who need the practice, in other words, not the teacher. In general terms, therefore, a good teacher maximises STT (Student Talking Time) and minimises TTT (Teacher Talking Time)” (Harmer 4).

In the years I studied Russian, I had often sat silent and content to let an entertaining teacher speak at great length. It felt laborious to try to do the speaking myself, and it seemed more important to listen to a good speech model. I did, however, feel more comfortable speaking one-on-one with a classmate when I was asked to do so. Don’t get me wrong. Listening to good speech models is important, but how can a student’s communication skills in a target language develop if there’s little or no practice speaking? Another person’s tendency to dominate conversation, be it the teacher or a classmate, as well as the student’s own reluctance to seize speaking opportunities can hinder language progress.

For all these reasons, I vowed that as a language teacher myself, I would provide many opportunities for STT and encourage more timid speakers to practice self-expression and abandon their fear of making mistakes. In practical terms, this translated into using a variety of classroom formats: whole group, small groups, and pairs. During whole group activity I limit TTT to what is necessary and useful, and in small groups or pair work, I set up activities so that everyone is required to contribute. Some students speak out no matter how you group them; others are vocal only when interacting in small numbers. Those less confident students can make the most of a speaking opportunity in pair work, and small group work can bridge the gap between their main comfort zone and the context in which they feel unease: speaking to the whole class.

My practice of trying to balance TTT and STT is only one of many that grew out of my own language learning experience. They say that hindsight is 20/20. I’d add to that: success often follows failure. Once identified and understood, weaknesses we displayed in the past as students can direct us in becoming better teachers today.


Harmer, Jeremy. How to Teach English. Pearson Education: 2007.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I enjoyed the article, in fact it helped me improve my work. thank you, and thank you

  2. juergenkurtz says:

    I agree, providing opportunities for learnes to participate actively in the target language is very important. In everyday foreign or second language classroom practice, how do you balance TTT and STT?

  3. englishwithjennifer says:

    To “juergenkurtz”:

    I’d say the real key is AWARENESS. As the teacher, you need to keep an appropriate balance between TTT and STT. It’s not necessarily 50/50. I hate to put an exact number on it, but 60 (STT)/ 40 (TTT) sounds right, on average.

    When it comes to conversation class, I’d argue for something closer to 80/20. TTT should be used as if minutes were pennies, and as the saying goes: every penny counts. No waste. The teacher facilitates, moderates, corrects, and explains. (S)he doesn’t go on at length. It’s particularly tempting in conversation class to dominate. With more advanced students, you may want to be a part of a discussion, but in being so vocal you risk losing valuable STT and decreasing student initiative because you state a position that some students won’t feel comfortable challenging.

    With beginners, a teacher may feel the need to fill up silence with TTT because the students are producing less language. Increasing TTT wouldn’t be as helpful as changing the FORMAT. Instead of having students listen as a whole class as the teacher rambles on, an activity can be done in pairs or small groups to maximize STT.

    In addition to a general AWARENESS of STT/TTT and a VARIETY OF STUDENT GROUPINGS to increase STT, you can try:
    1. having students read aloud instructions, model statements, etc.;
    2. making presentations interactive (by eliciting their examples, having them explain what they know already, etc.);
    3. encouraging students to help one another (e.g., see if students can provide answers to questions raised before you offer your own explanation).

  4. Amy says:

    Ah! The conversation is hard for me.
    But I want to try it. 🙂

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